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Sermon – July 25, 2010: Teach Us

Sermon for Sunday, July 25, 2010 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Teach Us

Psalm 85; Colossians 2: 6-19; Luke 11: 1 – 13

When Bucknell University celebrated its one-hundred-fiftieth year in 1996, the pastor

of its founding church was invited to offer a prayer at an event commemorating the school’s

beginnings. This church founded the university, I was the pastor, and so I went and gave

the prayer and was able to be at the convocation. Two men from the theater department

read selected passages from the writings of the Baptists who led the effort to begin a

college in this community, and then-President Adams gave an address.

Those who labored and sacrificed in 1846 to bring to birth what became Bucknell

referred over and over to God’s will, God’s guidance, God’s intent, and God’s blessings.

The great enterprise they began and urged along was founded on faith, hope, and love,

and upon a vivid conviction of God’s leading. Starting an institution of higher education in a

community then still near the young nation’s frontier was the result of frequent and fervent

prayer.

So much language, and such impassioned language, about God, sounded a bit

dated in the late-twentieth century gathering. Views of religion vary much more in modern

times than they did in the 1840’s, and America’s culture– especially at a university– is much

more diverse than in was almost two centuries ago.

So it wasn’t surprising that President Adams gave a speech without mentioning God

once. He repeatedly mentioned the importance of the university’s mission, but hope for

fulfilling that mission no longer rested upon prayer and religious devotion. Instead, he said

over and over, it relied on the loyalty and generosity of former students. It was the alumni,

and not the Almighty, who were going to secure Bucknell’s future. This was an appropriate

emphasis in an era when college presidency had long ceased to be the province of

religious leaders, and when the work of a college president had largely become that of

fundraising.

It was also an inevitable message in a time in which the vast majority of America’s

traditional Protestants no longer were so enthusiastic about their relationship to God to live

sacrificially to support faith-based endeavors. In the late twentieth-century the kind of prayer

loosely defined as meditation had gained a great deal of credibility, and began to be

prescribed as therapeutic; but the kind of prayer pursued by Bucknell’s founders, with its

zealous pleading to a familiar God to illuminate their path and provide practical help for their

work, had come to be associated with old-fashioned and unsophisticated kinds of

Christianity. It was hard to regret that the university had come to count upon the usefulness

and reliability of money.

But look what counting on God had accomplished. A small community of only

ordinary wealth, a handful of people no more gifted than the congregation we compose this

morning, had managed to give birth to a school and had begun to transform not only this

town but the wider world. It was recognized as a great work not because of its size, but

because it was for God, and because it was for God, people devoted themselves and

their lives to its success.

The premise of the founders of this church, who then founded Bucknell, was that this

world was part of a larger reality, and that the passing things of this world were overseen

and sometimes shaped by God to conform to a divine vision of the eventual but inevitable

triumph of God’s priorities. When people prayed and did their best to do what they

believed God desired, they were playing a small part in the master plan. Difficulty neither

surprised nor dismayed them. They were realistic enough to know that the world is full of

obstacles and events which at least temporarily extinguish hope–they knew the world was

like that both from reading the Bible and from the evidence of their own lives.

But the evidence of their own lives and the Bible likewise was that God truly exists,

and cares, and carries on a holy purpose to bless Creation. That’s the perspective of

today’s psalm. It invokes God’s deliverance of the people in the past, and then pleads for

help in the present. Any given present may indeed be a time of despair and defeat, when

the once well-established fact of divine dominion over the world and heavenly rescue of the

helpless seems no longer to hold. Faith, however, has no alternative but to insist that that’s

the way it will be again. That’s how the psalm concludes, with the assertion that God’s will

for the good of God’s people will be established, that righteousness and peace shall kiss,

that things will turn out the way God wants them.

Oh, it’s hard to talk about the effectiveness of prayer in a world in which our prayers

aren’t always answered the way we would wish. It’s not the case, as scripture sometimes

suggests, that our prayers aren’t answered only when we are asking wrongly, when we’re

being selfish, or shortsighted. I will insist–and I don’t expect God to contradict me when in

that next world the mysteries of this life become more plan–that there were prayers of mine

that would have been right to have answered, that weren’t answered. That’s the way it is,

but faith expects prayer still to serve its purpose, and experience still supports that prayer

changes things.

It’s because the world the believer knows remains a larger world than the one we

see with our eyes and touch with our bodies. God has revealed to us the reality of God’s

sovereignty and the reliability of Christ’s achievements, and so we have a broader view

and wider resources than we sometimes think. Our tendency to get caught up in the habits

and attitudes of daily living and the expectations of life in the body means that we must be

reminded, again and again, of the larger reality of which we are a part. That’s the message

from our reading from Colossians, that what seems like reasonable supposing about life

shouldn’t mislead us about who we are or what life is– that all those mystical and invisible

realities and supports do under gird our daily existence and define our true nature.

When Jesus’ disciples approach him and ask, “Teach us to pray, as John taught his

disciples,” they aren’t interested only in behaving religiously. They’re not just embarrassed

to feel like they aren’t religious enough in what they do, so they want to add praying to their

daily routine so they’ll seem more like disciples. No; they believe that prayer connects

them with the great invisible powers in the midst of which they live. They believe that God,

the same God who led their ancestors out of slavery by miracles and wonders, will be

more a part of their personal lives if they pray. They hope that prayer will change their

lives, because they see Jesus praying all the time and Jesus’ life is changing the world.

I started out with examples from the history of this church and I will end with a couple.

Twenty-five years ago the church had given its pastor permission to moonlight because

they felt they couldn’t pay an adequate salary, and the church was frustrated because

sharing its facility with lots of self-help groups and other ministries seemed to be taking a toll

on the building and there wasn’t any money to put things right. Someone must have been

praying–and I’m saying this because if someone isn’t praying in a church when there are

needs, then what kind of business is the church in? Someone must have been praying,

and eventually–and you’re free to think there’s no connection, that it’s just a coincidence, the

church gets a big inheritance it never expected to receive. So they can afford to do all the

things for ministry about which they once worried, including bringing back in the self-help

groups and sharing the building for the sake of community needs.

Then around fifteen years ago there was a sense within the church that First Baptist

needed some significant project to focus its work, and a task force investigated refugee

resettlement as a ministry. People met and talked and gathered information and got to the

place where the whole church was going to be invited to endorse this vision, and it stalled.

There wasn’t the unanimity people felt was needed, and it seemed to fizzle. However,

people had probably been praying that God help us help people from somewhere else

find a new life here. Again, it may have been a coincidence, but a man who lives in town

who had a rental property here encouraged a household recently relocated from overseas

to move to Lewisburg and then he encouraged them to come to this church. People will

think what they must about it, but I believe the presence in this church today of that family

and the church’s presence through the years in their lives is an answer to prayer.

The church is always in the process of becoming something else. The world doesn’t

stand still. What I ask all of you to do is to pray for this church, that God show us what God

wants us to do in 2011 and 2012 and the years coming after that. New life in a church

needs to rest upon the guidance and goals of God. It is up to us to be open to God’s

leading, and that’s why I want people to pray about it. We need to serve Lewisburg in

new ways, as the community changes, as this community changes. As a church we need to

open our hearts to God’s purpose for us, so that we can with greater confidence look

forward to our collective life in the months and years ahead, that we be doing the work God

has for us to do.

 

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